Three Clark School Faculty Earn NSF CAREER Awards
Dr. Baoxia Mi (left), Dr. Stanislav Stoliarov (center) and Dr. Dongxia Liu (right)
Three faculty members from the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering have been awarded National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Awards for their innovative research projects involving flame resistant material design and the conversion of methane into alternative fuels.
The NSF CAREER program supports the career development of outstanding junior faculty who most effectively integrate research and education within the goals and missions of their programs, departments, and schools.
Civil and Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor Baoxia Mi was selected for an NSF CAREER award for her proposal for "Graphene-enabled Synthesis and Surface Modification of Water Separation Membranes."
Mi, who also directs the University of Maryland's Membrane Innovation Lab, is researching the potentials of graphene oxide nanosheets for synthesizing a fundamentally new class of membranes and surface-modifying various existing membranes for high-performance water treatment.
According to Mi, membrane technology is generally considered one of the most effective strategies to tackle water scarcity worldwide; however, high energy requirements and long-term fouling issues have been major obstacles preventing widespread application of this technology. The graphene-based membrane technology that Mi proposed will hopefully be highly fouling-resistant, energy-efficient and capable of removing various contaminants from water.
Mi is optimistic that the graphene-based membrane technology will be very useful not only for drinking water purification and wastewater reuse, but also for renewable energy production, biomedical sensing and artificial organ development.
Assistant Professor of Fire Protection Engineering Stanislav I. Stoliarov was awarded a 5-year, $412,418 NSF CAREER Award for “Understanding Flammability of Charring Polymers.” His research project is focused on developing a quantitative understanding of burning for charring and intumescing polymeric systems. These systems represent one of the most promising and environmentally benign solutions to the hazards associated with polymer flammability. The mechanism of their flame resistance has not been well understood, hampering material development efforts.
This project will produce an in-depth understanding of char growth dynamics in a wide range of polymeric systems including a new generation of biodegradable materials. This understanding is expected to transform the field of flame resistant material design and enable qualitative improvements in public safety. The research results will be rapidly disseminated among scientists and practicing engineers and utilized to strengthen an array of partnerships with industry and professional organizations. This project will be used to foster students’ interest in science while promoting fire safety.
A proposal to use a new ceramic membrane to improve the conversion of methane into alternative fuels has also earned Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Dongxia Liu a 5-year, $400,000 NSF CAREER award.
Methane, the main component of natural gas, can be converted into C2 (diatomic carbon)-based gases such as ethylene and ethane, which are used to produce commodity chemicals, polymers, and alternative fuels. It has the potential to play a significant role as a raw material for fuel and chemical production, reducing our need for petroleum.
As a resource, Liu says, methane is abundant and much cheaper than petroleum.
“The price of petroleum-like chemicals derived from methane is high because we do not have a cheap, efficient process for converting methane into these products,” she explains, “so we cannot use it directly as an energy source in the near future.”
As a result, she adds, a lot of methane goes to waste. “When we drill for oil, we also get methane, but most of the methane produced by oil rigs, especially in remote locations, is burned off instead of used. That pollutes our environment by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”
Liu explains that the challenge to efficient methane conversion lies with the critical control of oxygen (O2) concentration and catalyst activity in the reaction chamber’s membrane, which stimulates the process.
The reactor’s membrane is responsible for both permeation, the process by which oxygen from the atmosphere is added to the reactor, and methane activation, the reaction that produces C2 gases. In an ideal situation, it would be capable of performing comparable levels of permeation and activation to ensure the speed and output required for industrial production of C2 products. Currently, no available membrane material can create the C2 gases as fast as it permeates O2. This leaves the catalyzed ethylene and ethane exposed to excess oxygen and vulnerable to the second reaction that converts them to CO and CO2.
Liu’s research group is developing a new type of catalytic membrane based on a biomineral called hydroxyapatite (HAP), a major component of teeth and bones. The new material is reactive-separative, meaning it is both a catalyst for the reactions and capable of permeating O2 in controlled concentrations into the reactor. Liu believes a perfected HAP-based membrane could perform each task at a comparable rate, wasting less methane, preventing the production of greenhouse gases, increasing product yield, and reducing the energy required to obtain the desired results. The technique used to create the membranes allows Liu’s team to control their structure at the nanoscale, so they can also be adjusted for different reaction conditions and products. The name of her NSF CAREER Award project is Surface Crystallization of Reactive Oxygen Permeable Hydroxyapatite-based Membranes for Direct Methane Oxidative Conversion.
For more information about the NSF CAREER Awards program, visit: http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=503214.
December 16, 2013